Shooting Stars

Nuclear Force treaty (where the Soviets had to eliminate 1280 warheads, while

the US had to remove only 429), but also by the USSR’s massive display of

concessions at the 1986 Reykjavik summit between Gorbachev and Reagan (not to

speak of Gorbachev’s January 1986 proposal to eliminate all nuclear weapons by

the year 2000). Gorbachev’s aside to Colin Powell was not only in jest, for the

USSR had undone the logic of detente and it had therefore made redundant the

chimera of dominance sought by the US. Over the five decades of the Cold War,

but for a brief interlude in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the principle form

of interaction between the US and USSR was by way of negotiations to prevent

annihilation: what was known as mutual assured destruction or MAD. During his

last few weeks in office President Eisenhower bemoaned the growth of a

military-industrial complex: the military and its contractors argued for more

and more resources and power by the fabrication of fear about Soviet military

might. Gorbachev’s remark to Colin Powell was apropos of the military-industrial

complex that has, since the mid-1980s, sought to find a determinate enemy to

ensure its growth, but also to justify in ideological terms the maintenance of

US global hegemony.

Indeed, two years after the Moscow meeting, Colin Powell became the leading US

military figure, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Faced with

recalcitrance under President George H. Bush, Powell argued that the USSR was a

reasonable adversary and that "terrorist" or "rogue" states did not pose a

ballistic threat to the US. "Based on my knowledge of how the Soviets manage

their nuclear systems and the safeguards they have," he said in 1990, "I’m

fairly comfortable that those weapons will not get into improper hands. [If they

did] the systems they have to protect those weapons would make them pretty much

unusable." A few months later Saddam Hussein’s army invaded Iraq and provided

the US with the proper justification for the maintenance of its nuclear arsenal

despite the dismemberment of the USSR. The "rogue" state (North Korea, Cuba,

Iraq, Iran) emerged as not only as the leading enemy of the US, but also as the

main rhetorical justification for the continuation of the US’s nuclear military.

Now, Colin Powell is the Secretary of State under George W. Bush and it is his

job to travel the world and convince the allies not only that the US requires

its promethean arsenal to clobber its enemies, but that it also needs a vast

anti-ballistic missile defense network to protect its military and population.


all the many things that have bewildered the world about the first hundred days

of the reign of Bush the Second, nothing is as strange as his promotion of the

anti-ballistic missile defense piece. With this one gambit, Bush the Second has

provoked anger and unease in most of the world’s capitals, although New Delhi’s

Hindu Right government was eager to please its Washington overlords. Since the

appearance of missile defense in the US political world through Ronald Reagan’s

famous 1983 "Star Wars" speech to promote his Strategic Defense Initiative

(SDI), the anti-missile defense idea has not made much technological or military

progress. But, as Frances Fitzgerald shows us in her new book <Way Out There in

the Blue> (Simon and Shuster, 2000), the SDI idea gave Reagan necessary

political and geo-strategic capital; perhaps, we may surmise, Bush the Second

hopes to garner similar gains with his assertive promotion of the theatre

defense shield (what some have called Son of Star Wars, to honour both the

cinematic heritage of Reagan and the dynastic one of Bush). Reagan crafted

himself (or allowed his advisors to craft him) as the defender of the "free

world" against the armageddon of nuclear warfare. Detente required the two

regimes to hold their various populations in mutual hostage against the threat

of a first strike; if you hit me, I will respond with overwhelming force. Reagan

drew from the immorality of this position: just as he erroneously claimed to

have freed the US hostages from Iran, he wanted to build a missile shield to

free his population from being hostage to nuclear annihilation. In February

1983, the Joint Chiefs of Staff prepared a paper for Reagan which argued that

defenses were "more moral and therefore more palatable to the American people,"

and because defenses "protect the American people, not just avenge them." The

logic was unimpeachable. In his 1983 Star Wars speech Reagan called "upon the

scientific community in this country, who gave us nuclear weapons, to turn their

great talents to the cause of mankind and world peace, to give us the means of

rendering these weapons impotent and obsolete."


it was also merely rhetoric. Reagan was forced into the moral language mainly by

the vast anti-nuclear (mainly anti-INF) movement across Europe and in the US

(the "freeze movement"). His own administration was teeming with advisors whose

main theory was to use fears of Soviet strength to build an overwhelming US

military (and nuclear) force. After all, fifty members of the ultra-conservative

Committee on the Present Danger staffed Reagan’s national security bureaucracy.

Founded in 1976, the CPD included all manner of Washington insiders, people such

as Paul Nitze who was the senior US negotiator at the Strategic Arms Limitation

Treaty talks of 1969-74 and of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty. In its

statement of purpose the CPD argued that the US had lost the edge of military

superiority because the Soviet’s use of civil defense training enabled them to

consider victory if the two powers had a nuclear exchange. The US population had

not been trained to protect itself, so the USSR would use this civil "window of

vulnerability" to its advantage in political negotiations. "If we continue to

drift," the CPD argued, "we shall become second best to the Soviet Union in

overall military strength. Our national survival would be in peril, and we

should face, one after another, bitter choices between war and acquiescence

under pressure." Reagan’s administration raised the US defense budget by 160

percent in its first six years, and the procurement has continued to rise

steadily since then. Meanwhile, from 1976 to 1986, the Soviet expenditure on

strategic missiles decreased by 40 percent. Furthermore, the CPD opposed SALT

II, or any agreement that, in the words of defense bureaucrat Richard Perle, did

"not entail a significant improvement in the strategic balance." In other words,

the US would not sign an agreement that did not leave it at an advantage. In

1976, Reagan made it clear that "Our foreign policy should be based on the

principle that we will go anywhere and do anything that has to be done to

protect our citizens from unjust treatment. Our national defense policy should

back that up with force." The world must bow down to US interests ("our

citizens" is not just people, but also corporations) even if it takes

overwhelming force to do so. In the second year of Reagan’s reign the US decided

to forge a military that could not only fight one and a half wars around the

globe, but two full scale conflicts. Vietnam was not to happen again. And

besides the moral rhetoric against populations being nuclear hostages was

entirely specious. In 1984, the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (set

up by the government in 1984) acknowledged that the SDI was not a population

defense, but, as its director noted before the US Senate, "I think it is a

defense deterrent that we are talking about to prevent them from being able to

hit your military capability."


SDI, then, enabled the Reagan administration to extend the reach of the US

military even as the missile defense idea itself was almost pure fantasy.

"Politically at least," Fitzgerald writes, "anti-missile defenses were better

air than metal." As early as 1962, the former director of the Pentagon’s Defense

Advanced Research Projects Agency, Herbert York, and Kennedy’s science advisor,

Jerome Wiesner, wrote that defenses would spur the Soviets to create better

weapons, and the cycle would go on. They called this the "dilemma of steadily

increasing military power and steadily decreasing national security. It is our

considered professional judgment that this dilemma has no technical solution."

On technical grounds Fitzgerald quotes from numerous reports that document the

scientific impossibility for a perfect defense. In 1983, for instance, a US

government audit found that the prospect for a national defense was "so remote

that it should not serve as the basis for public expectations of national policy

on ballistic missile defense." But the director of the SDIO responded to such

criticism with the statement that "I don’t think anything in this country is

technically impossible. We have a nation which indeed can produce miracles." In

Fitzgerald’s account, the Soviets feared that this was indeed the case and that

the expenditure of several billion dollars into SDI would yield some fruits. She

argues that the Soviets believed in the potential of SDI until Andrei Sakharov’s

statement in December 1986 that SDI "was impossible from the point of view of

military strategy" and a waste of money. But this is not entirely the case as

her own material illustrates.

Fitzgerald, like many US liberals, wants to dismiss Reagan as relatively

incompetent and the SDI initiative as a technical-military fantasy. Without a

theory of imperialism, there is a tendency to analyze SDI as folly. But, as she

shows, SDI allowed the US to dominate the 1980s by their threat of withdrawing

from arms-reduction treaties and negotiations. In February 1986, Gorbachev

admitted to as much when he told his advisors that "the United States is

counting on our readiness to build the same kind of costly system, hoping

meanwhile that they will win this race using their technological superiority."

It is only on page 407 of her book that Fitzgerald notes, almost in passing,

that "what worried [the Soviets] was that the US might deploy weapons of some

sort in space. This concern was not entirely unreasonable: the US was already

far ahead of the Soviet Union in the development of anti-satellite weapons, and

it was just plausible that the SDI program might sooner or later produce space

weaponry that could be used to destroy their ICBMs on the ground." One of the

real drawbacks of Fitzgerald’s book (from where I get most of this material) is

that she ignores the prospect of space weapons, indeed, calls the issue

"ludicrous." In hindsight, after the recent statements from the administration

of Bush the Second, the prospect is not at all ludicrous.

On 8

May 2001, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld announced that the Secretary

of the Air Force will "realign headquarters and field commands to more

effectively organize, train, and equip for prompt and sustained space

operations." Rumsfeld, who held the same post under the Ford administration, was

the chair of the Commission to Assess United States National Security Space

Management and Organization (report produced in 1998), is a key player in the

space weapons game. The Rumsfeld report of 1998 urges the US President to "have

the option to deploy weapons in space" and it warns against a "space Pearl

Harbor." As proof of the US drive toward the militarisation of space one need

only consider the US refusal to vote in favor of the UN’s Outer Space Treaty for

the past few years (in 1999 the US and Israel abstained, while in 2000 these two

nations were joined by Micronesia, a group of islands deeply dependent on US

aid). The Pentagon’s Space Command’s Long Range Plan notes that "now it is time

to begin developing space capabilities, innovative concepts of operations for

warfighting and organizations that can meet the challenge of the 21st Century."

In December 2000, the US Department of Defense authorized money for two laser

weapon projects, one by TRW, Lockheed Martin and Boeing and a second by TRW to

build the "Alpha High-Energy Laser." At his briefing on 8 May, Rumsfeld was

asked if the US wants to put weapons in space. His reply was hesitant, but then

he said that the US would continue to follow its National Space Policy (adopted

on 19 September 1996). He read a part of the text: "The Department of Defense

shall maintain the capability to execute the mission, areas of space support,

force enhancement, space control and force application. Consistent with treaty

obligations, the United States will develop, operate and maintain space control

capabilities to ensure freedom of action in space, and if directed, deny such

freedom of action to adversaries. These capabilities may also be enhanced by

diplomatic, legal and military measures to preclude an adversary’s hostile use

of space systems and services." The language is fairly clear.

On 16

January 1984, Reagan announced that "Nineteen eighty-four is the year of

opportunities for peace." War is Peace, as Orwell wrote in his satirical book

<1984.> Peace through strength, peace through domination. It is clear to most of

the world that the Son of Star Wars, the Nuclear Missile Defense option, is also

not about defense, but it is another way for the US to exert its global

hegemony. The NMD, as this history of the SDI shows us, is a political weapon to

further US ends rather than enhance global security.

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